ebruary 6 - Varadero to la Habana
How does one explain the differences between Varadero and Havana (called La Habana by locals and pronounced "labana")? Varadero certainly has its charms and it's a great place to completely relax and get beach time; however, the sprawling resorts bear little in common with the rest of the country. In La Habana, crumbling apartments, exhaust belching 56 Chevies, ration shops and expressive locals will leave you reeling. In its grit is an authentic Cuba that must be a shock for travellers arriving from the sun drenched beaches and pristine hotels of Varadero. Much of the city looks like it was recently bombed; baroque facades are intact and little else of the building is still standing. As we walk from the Viazul bus drop for La Habana Centro and Vieja (old city), up the Prado (pedestiran walkway), we immediately know that we are in a country whose people like in poverty.
Arriving doesn't necessarily mean anything will be easy! Our first stop is our casa particulare owned by Julio and Elsa Roque. Unfortunately, their current guests have decided to stay another few days and our room is not available; Julio calls another casa owner who is close by ... turns out the other casa is 8 blocks away and much farther from everything we want to see. After trudging along the eight blocks and up 9 long flights of stairs, we explain that we are not interested and decline the room.
Plan B. We have another option with Esther Cardoso who has a number of rooms on Aguila. Alas, she is full too, but has a friend a block away on Neptuno. We are escorted and meet Juanita and Carlos who are both engineers. Juanita speaks fluent English; Carlos speaks none at all. They are charming and we take the sparse room based mostly on their friendliness. The doublebed is sagging, the room has no window (a good thing since we will not hear the barking dogs and street noise), but we have a private bath. We book two nights since she has other guests arriving on the 8th. Aye Cuba.
With Juanita's recommendation, we have dinner at Los Nardos ... and now begins our education. As we peruse the menu, our server offers the "specialty of the house" which is Tropical Sangria. We both believe we are ordering a glass when a pitcher arrives. He explains it only holds three glasses and gestures that we shouldn't worry. Our menu says a pitcher containing "tres" is 8.95 CUC. Our dinner portions are HUGE and could easily have been split between us. When the bill arrives, we are surprised to see the Sangria is 12CUC. A short discussion with the waiter is fruitless and we agree to be more careful when we order anything which is a recommended "specialty of the house."
The highlight of our day, and perhaps our time in La Habana is attending the Gran Teatro de La Habana's production of "Tosca." The principals are all from Korea and are exceptional. The orchestra, costuming and chorus are also impressive. The set is minimalist, but works very well for the production. Once again, we stumble upon a treasure that is quite unexpected. Our walk home is chilly, but the opera has warmed our souls.